Film & TV: Where are the women?

On Tuesday, 5th March, Tortoise and Fora celebrated International Women’s Day by getting to grips with a chewy discussion on women in film and TV. We’re grateful to Fora for asking us to convene this discussion.

The ThinkIn is the engine of our journalism. We use it to inform our approach to stories we’re already working on, to gather your expertise and ideas and to help us identify new stories that need telling. As well as the editor’s playback at the end of the ThinkIn, we always produce a slower, more considered version – a ‘readout’, or in the daily digital edition, the Tortoise Take. Here’s last night’s, informed by you.

ThinkIn Readout – Film & TV: Where are the women?
The subject was ‘where are the women?’ and it’s fair to say that for too long the answer has been ‘nowhere to be seen’. There were some chilling facts thrown out in the room. Among them, BFI (British Film Institute) statistics show that between 1911-2017:
– The most common word in film titles was ‘man’
– There were exactly the same number of female directors in 2017 as there were in 1911
– The percentage of women cast in British films has remained unchanged in 100 years
– Since the beginning of time, 93% of British films have been directed by men.

In TV, the picture is no rosier: between 2004-2017 there was a grand total of two pieces of original writing by women commissioned by Channel 4.

Why does it matter? Research shows that more TV and film a girl watches, the worse her self-esteem. When a man is cast in all the dominant roles (politicians, doctors, lawyers) and the women repeatedly seen playing as prostitutes, housekeepers and receptionist, then that inevitably has an impact on how society values women. As Emily Francis, a campaigner for Era 50:50 told us: “If you see her you can be her”. We owe it to the next generation to make a radical change in how we portray women in screen.

And that change is happening, albeit painfully slowly. We didn’t even have the language to talk about these things some years ago. But thanks, in part, to the uproar around Harvey Weinstein and the MeToo movement, companies are increasingly introducing quotas, targets and inclusion riders (a clause where actors and actresses can insert into their contracts a demand for demographic representation in cast and crew). In our audience last night, a female scripted development producer in comedy had employed a crew of 75% women (compare that to the British film industry average: just 1% films that have a majority female crew).

We’re seeing great progress in what’s in the cinemas right now (The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots being two highlights) but why is it you can be a woman in leadership but only if you’re the queen of England?

We are, at last, witnessing more contemporary female stories come to the screen with spectacular results (see: Fleabag, which returned triumphantly to TV this week) proving womens’ stories are worth ‘taking a gamble on’. But this can’t be tokenistic. The economic system needs to change to support women in the industry after they become parents, for example (who, after all, wants to spend months on location away from their kids?) At Netflix they are introducing a five-day production week, this is a great start, but it’s just the beginning. If new companies can disrupt the gender imbalance as well as how we consume TV and film then that would be a welcome revolution indeed.

Merope Mills

This event was part of Fora’s International Women’s Day series, conceived to celebrate female achievement and ask what is means to be a woman in 2019, both within the workplace and beyond.Thank you for joining us.

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